President Joe Biden’s strategy for ending hunger in the U.S. by 2030 is being funded in part by companies whose own workers sometimes can’t afford to buy food.
The Biden administration’s national plan to eliminate hunger and reduce diet-related diseases includes $8 billion in “new commitments” from more than 30 businesses, nonprofits and philanthropies. The commitments include companies pledging to donate meals and cash to food banks and community groups, or promising to make the food they sell to Americans healthier, among other actions.
Some observers have questioned why the list of companies participating in the anti-hunger strategy includes some whose business practices, in their view, contribute to America’s hunger problem. Namely, three gig-economy companies — DoorDash, which delivers mainly restaurant meals; Shipt, an app for arranging home delivery of groceries and other items; and Instacart, another grocery-delivery service — are among those pledging assistance in the administration’s war on hunger.
“It is profoundly unsettling that companies like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which refuse to pay their workers a minimum wage floor and overtime, [and] refuse to provide health insurance and workers’ compensation, get cover under an initiative like this,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, a fellow at Stanford University and an advocate for gig workers. “They get to pretend they care about hunger and poverty when, in fact, their firm practices exacerbate hunger and poverty.”
Gig-economy companies say they provide flexibility and independence to workers, who can set their own schedules and work as little or as much as they want. But drivers for delivery apps like DoorDash
Instacart and Target-owned
Shipt are not classified as employees; they’re independent contractors. That means they don’t receive the protections and benefits that employees are legally required to have, like a guaranteed minimum wage, paid time off and unemployment insurance.
‘It’s not right that I can’t afford the food I deliver’
There is evidence that gig workers are more likely than other service-sector workers to experience hunger firsthand. In spring 2020, nearly one in five (19%) gig workers went hungry, compared to 14% of other service-sector workers, according to a national study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Twice the rate of gig workers (30%) as W-2 employees in the service sector (15%) relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the public benefit once known as food stamps — within a month of the survey, according to the study. (W-2 refers to the tax form employees use to report their income.)
Steady, an app that helps mostly low-income gig workers, self-employed individuals and part-time workers navigate work opportunities, compare pay rates and more, conducted a public-benefits survey among its users in early October. The survey, which had more than 3,500 respondents from across the country, found that about 42% of workers with at least one month of gig income receive SNAP benefits — slightly higher than the 40% of those who have only W-2, or employee, income.
Cardell Calloway, a 68-year-old DoorDash delivery worker from Lancaster, Calif., who said he has been living in his car for about a month after his RV was towed away, relies on SNAP benefits. When his church was offering food, he would also go there, he said.
Calloway does deliveries eight to 12 hours a day at least five days a week and makes about $500 a week, he said.
“It’s not right that I can’t afford the food I deliver,” Calloway said. Asked what he thinks about DoorDash partnering with the White House on the hunger initiative, he said, “I have to be skeptical about anything DoorDash comes up with.”
“ ‘It is profoundly unsettling that companies like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which refuse to pay their workers a minimum wage floor and overtime, [and] refuse to provide health insurance and workers’ compensation, get cover under an initiative like this.’”
Dubal said her research showed that during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, gig workers had “no financial safety net” and were going to food banks. That jibes with a study by the UCLA Labor Center and the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, which found in the summer of 2020 that one-third of California gig workers they surveyed did not have enough money to buy groceries, and that 39% came close to not having enough money for food.
Overall in the U.S., nearly 4% of households experienced “very low food security” in 2021, meaning they routinely skipped meals or cut their food intake because they could not afford more food, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report found. About one in 10 households experienced “food insecurity” that year, meaning they “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources.”
Estimates of gig workers’ earnings vary widely
Estimates of how much income gig workers take home can range quite a bit. Spokespeople for DoorDash, Shipt and Instacart said their delivery workers make an average hourly wage of about $25 to $35.
But some studies suggest much lower wages because they take into account all the costs borne by gig workers. Drivers and delivery workers must use their own vehicles, pay for their own gas, in most cases buy their own healthcare coverage and more. A study from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center and a recent one backed by gig workers suggest hourly wages — which are based on the time when a worker is actively engaged on the app and do not include total working time — could be as low as under $10.
Gig companies have repeatedly pointed to their own studies and other research backed by gig companies that show much higher wages for gig workers, whom they say choose the work because of the flexibility it provides. Spokespeople for DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt did not respond directly to questions about studies suggesting gig workers are more likely to experience food insecurity than W-2 service-sector workers.
A DoorDash spokesperson said the company has launched financial literacy and financial coaching programs to help Dashers “save, invest and grow their supplemental earnings.” An Instacart spokesperson said the company is transparent with workers about how much they’ll earn from a given assignment, so workers can decide whether it’s worth taking.
‘The top problem is low wages’
Livable wages, not donations to food banks, should be first on the list of remedies to solve hunger in the U.S., said Joel Berg, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Hunger Free America.
The public has a skewed vision of charity’s role in addressing food insecurity, he says, because “much of the way the media covers this is backwards, implying that the top problem is not enough charity and the top solution is more charity. The top problem is low wages and high cost of living, and then the second issue is the safety net,” Berg said.
“The countries of the planet that have far less hunger than the United States don’t have it because they have more charity; they have it because their economy functions better, they have higher wages and they have a more robust safety net, which in most places is basically cash,” Berg added.
Charities like food banks can and should fill in the gaps, Berg said, but in his view, expanding the number of people signed up for SNAP; WIC, a program that provides food benefits and nutrition education for low-income mothers and young children; and other benefits is the most effective solution to hunger. It’s a view he acknowledges is self-interested, because Hunger Free America exists in part to sign people up for these programs. (He also noted that Hunger Free America has received funding from two of the companies involved in the Biden administration effort, Albertsons
“‘The biggest correlation to hunger and food insecurity in America isn’t even the safety net, and it’s certainly not charity — it’s the state of the American economy.’ ”
It can seem to the public that food banks are on the front lines of solving hunger, Berg said, a view that was heightened early in the pandemic when thousands of cars lined up at food banks across the U.S. But in reality, the dollar amount of food distributed through public benefits like SNAP, WIC and other federal programs is at least 17 times the dollar amount of food distributed by every food charity in America, according to Berg’s calculations.
That’s because SNAP reaches millions of people — 38 million nationwide in 2019 — who use it regularly to buy their food, while food banks and soup kitchens serve people more episodically, often providing just one meal or a few days’ worth of food at a time, Berg said. Officials with food banks have made similar points.
“The only thing that’s a bigger impact than the safety net is wages and employment,” Berg said. “We see that the biggest correlation to hunger and food insecurity in America isn’t even the safety net, and it’s certainly not charity — it’s the state of the American economy.”
When Hunger Free America submitted recommendations to the Biden administration ahead of September’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the first one on the list was “creating living wage jobs.” But Berg doesn’t see an issue with the Biden administration accepting donations from companies whose wages fall below that standard.
“It’s entirely appropriate for the Biden administration to welcome commitments from any company that wants to do the right thing, at the same time as holding them accountable,” Berg said. “I don’t see it as a conflict whatsoever.”
He praised the Biden administration’s hunger strategy for striking a good balance, because the $8 billion in commitments from companies and other entities is just one part of a much broader strategy. “The way they framed this, as additive rather than a replacement, I think was just right,” he said.
Walmart’s hunger-fighting milestone
There are other examples, apart from the Biden administration’s effort, of companies playing a significant role in hunger relief while also being criticized for low wages. The most prominent is probably Walmart
which recently celebrated the milestone of donating 7 billion pounds of food to Feeding America’s food-bank network.
“To put that in perspective, the population of the U.S. is over 331 million people,” Walmart said on its website. “That means we donated enough food for every person in America to eat three meals a day for five days.” Walmart has also donated more than $145 million in grants to Feeding America since 2005, the nonprofit says.
At the same time, Walmart has long been criticized for not paying its associates higher wages. Average hourly pay as of March 2022 was $16.40 an hour, with some roles reaching $30 an hour in some areas, the company has said. Walmart was one of the top employers of SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries in 11 states, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2020 found. That report also found that in two states, Washington and Nebraska, DoorDash was among the top employers of SNAP recipients.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. The company isn’t on the list of those providing the $8 billion in new commitments for Biden’s hunger strategy, but it has pledged to address the White House hunger and nutrition goals.
A ‘revolutionary’ step food-delivery apps could take
One “revolutionary” step that delivery apps like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt could take would be to let their customers pay with SNAP, Berg says, and then deliver food to seniors with mobility issues or to neighborhoods that don’t have healthy food.
Some of the delivery apps appear to be moving in that direction with their commitments to the Biden administration. Shipt says it will work with retailers to expand the use of SNAP and other public benefits on its platform, among other actions. Shipt customers can already use SNAP and EBT (the Electronic Benefits Transfer card that stores government assistance money) to pay for same-day delivery orders through Meijer, the Midwestern chain grocer. Shipt is piloting SNAP/EBT payments “with another large retail partner right now,” a spokesperson said.
“Shipt’s new initiatives to reduce food insecurity and expand access to healthy foods are an integral part of our ongoing commitment to put people first and make a meaningful impact in parts of our country that have been historically underserved,” Shipt spokesperson Evangeline George said.
Instacart says that as part of the Biden anti-hunger strategy, it will work with the USDA to incorporate SNAP and the government-assistance program Temporary Aid to Needy Families into its online platform “with a goal of expanding these benefits to all grocery partners by 2030.” It’s also launching new technology called Fresh Funds that will allow companies and other entities to provide stipends to employees or other individuals to buy “fresh, nutritious foods” on Instacart, among other actions.
DoorDash does not accept SNAP; the program doesn’t typically pay for restaurant food, though some states are starting to allow SNAP benefits to cover restaurant meals. DoorDash did not respond to an inquiry about whether it plans to accept SNAP or other public benefits, but the company said in a white paper on reducing food insecurity that it supports increasing SNAP benefits and expanding eligibility.
DoorDash’s role in the Biden plan will involve directly delivering food to hungry people. The company is donating $1 million in “Community Credits” to pay for charitable food deliveries in 18 cities with which it is “partnering.” DoorDash will also give hunger-relief groups in those cities access to Project Dash, a way for nonprofit and government groups to arrange food deliveries to people in need using the same DoorDash technology that restaurants use. The company did not respond to a question about how long its partnerships with the cities will last.
The role of companies in addressing hunger
The $8 billion in “new commitments” is just one piece of Biden’s overall hunger strategy, unveiled at September’s White House conference on hunger. The plan also includes expanding access to SNAP; increasing children’s access to free meals at school; and changing food labels so it’s easier for shoppers to pick out healthy food. “It calls for a whole-of-government and whole-of-America approach to addressing the challenges we face,” the White House said of the national strategy.
The companies’ pledges raise questions about what role food-industry businesses should play in solving hunger in the U.S. Some experts welcome companies’ involvement in the national effort; others say the pledges miss the mark because they don’t address systemic issues that lead to hunger and diet-related illness.
“ ‘We have to be realistic in understanding that the incentives of a corporation (i.e. profit) are not aligned with what the nation needs right now to combat nutrition insecurity.’”
“The White House conference really made a strong effort to include industry and partner with industry, and while that’s laudable, I don’t think it’s going to be particularly effective,” said Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America. Many of the pledges seem to be one-time donations to the charitable food system, he said, and fail to address underlying factors that contribute to food insecurity and poor diet quality.
To be sure, some of the corporate pledges do involve attempts to improve Americans’ diets. The National Restaurant Association, for example, says it will expand a program under which restaurants voluntarily make their children’s menus healthier.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Other hunger experts say corporations must be at the table when solutions to hunger are crafted.
“If we are going to solve this massive problem in our entire food ecosystem, we are going to need all sectors to come to the table — including industry,” said Hilary Seligman, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who served on a task force that advised the White House hunger conference. “But we have to be realistic in understanding that the incentives of a corporation (i.e. profit) are not aligned with what the nation needs right now to combat nutrition insecurity, as well as other problems such as climate change and rampant levels of diabetes.”
As for companies paying low wages, she said, “They should do better; I’m just not sure I’m ready to blame the companies for it, because I think fundamentally the problem is our government allows it. Assuring a livable wage needs to be part of our all-of-government response to food and nutrition insecurity.”